Despairing teen refugee ‘ends life’ in Libya detention centre

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WARNING: The following story contains images that may be disturbing to some readers.

The picture of a 19-year-old’s body hanging lifeless from the ceiling in one of the halls-cum-dorms of the Ain Zara detention centre, south of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, is the latest evidence of the human cost of the country’s detention centres.

Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, a refugee from Sudan’s war-torn region of Darfur, is believed to have killed himself on June 5 after being released and apprehended again in the span of two weeks.

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Libya are languishing in the centres, trapped in endless cycles of detention and abuse with dire repercussions for their mental health and safety.

Asylum seekers who spoke to Al Jazeera from inside Ain Zara said Abdel Aziz’s body was left hanging for hours in the room where he lived with hundreds of others.

Mustafa, another Sudanese asylum seeker who asked that his name be changed to protect his identity, told Al Jazeera the image of Abdel Aziz’s body was taken covertly by detainees at the centre. Libyan authorities later confiscated phones to prevent the image from spreading, and dozens were not returned.

Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, 19, hanged himself in Ain Zara detention centre.
Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, 19, is believed to have hanged himself in Ain Zara detention centre, near the Libyan capital Tripoli. [Al Jazeera via sources]

Mustafa said people trapped in the detention centre are growing increasingly desperate as they see little or no hope for the future.

“We have been here for five months,” he said. “Mohamed got tired of this until he reached this level and he [killed himself].”

Set free, then detained again

Abdel Aziz and Mustafa had been arrested in an overnight raid while peacefully demonstrating for relocation, protection, and evacuation from Libya outside the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) on January 10.

More than 600 people were violently arrested and detained that day. The protests followed a major crackdown in the western town of Gargaresh, a hub for asylum seekers from African countries, that displaced thousands of people and resulted in the detention of at least 5,000.

Abdel Aziz was set free on May 23 as part of a group of 99 asylum seekers, including 46 children, evacuated from Ain Zara with the support of UNHCR.

He likely spent days on the streets before being apprehended again by Libyan authorities and taken back to the centre, where he is believed to have taken his own life shortly after.

Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz.
Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz [Al Jazeera via sources]

“He was given 500 dinar ($104) but it was not enough to rent any room to stay in,” Mustafa said. “The UNHCR makes you sign a paper saying they cannot help with accommodation.”

The UNHCR told Al Jazeera in a written statement that it was “saddened by the tragic death of the young asylum seeker”. It did not confirm the sum of assistance allocated but said the teenager had “received cash assistance in different instalments through our urban programmes”.

The agency provided a copy of the consent form for transfer, which states: “UNHCR is NOT providing accommodation NOR can it arrange for accommodation.”

As of May 22, the UNHCR estimates that there are 2,772 people held in detention centres across Libya.

The agency said it does not keep track of how many people are re-apprehended after being released with its support.

The Libyan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Little oversight

Hussein Baumi, Libya and Egypt campaigner at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera detention centres in Libya operate with increasingly scarce oversight on the part of international organisations, including the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Libyan authorities have closed centres run by the Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) that were rife with abuse, but similar patterns of violations have been reproduced in newly opened or re-opened centres that are run by militias away from scrutiny.

Amnesty has documented torture, cruel and inhuman detention conditions, extortion and forced labour, as well as invasive, humiliating and violent strip searches inside detention facilities.

Even when someone is released, freedom is not guaranteed for long.

“A lot of people who are released are captured again, sometimes by the same militias,” Baumi said, adding that detention is often lucrative for armed groups who ask for ransom. “It is not a safe space for migrants and asylum seekers.”

For those who were hoping to pass through Libya on their way to Europe, that is often not an option.

The European Union has spent more than 57.2 million euros ($64.8m) in Libya, with the declared objective of “sav[ing] the lives of those making dangerous journeys by sea or land”, according to a fact sheet published by the European Commission in June 2021.

It has trained and equipped the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats of refugees and migrants hoping to make it to Europe and return them to Libyan shores. Human rights watchdogs have long decried the alleged conduct of the coastguard, including the use of firearms and the deliberate damaging of boats. 

So far in 2022, at least 8,860 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants have been reported as intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and other naval authorities.

“People take boats knowing that they might die,” Baumi said.

“This is the only way for them to escape mistreatment in Libya.”

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help.

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